North Korea is part of perhaps the most consequential near-term trend: after a year of seemingly endless threats, 2018 will be the year Trump takes action on many of his disruptive views impacting both economic and security issues.
And all these things are magnified by the cloud over Trump’s head: the special investigation on Trump campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia in the 2016 election may see indictments of his family members or even Trump himself. This could make Trump more reckless and lead him to seek diversions.
First, on trade, Trump may try to end the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS), and erode the WTO. Such actions (NAFTA and KORUS abrogation would face legal challenges in the US), if carried out, would likely disrupt buoyant global stock markets and global supply chains.
What happens when Trump discovers that there is no interest in bilateral trade deals with the US? He has no Plan B. US exporters will start to lose markets as the EU-Japan, EU-Canada, TPP-11 come into effect.
On security and other global issues, Trump may ramp up confrontation with Iran, with more sanctions and unraveling of the Iran nuclear deal.
Trump has already cut US aid to Pakistan, creating new tensions. The US may cut off more funds to the UN and its special agencies like UNRWA, WHO and UNICEF, furthering weakening the international system.
All this contributes to a second major trend: movement to a post-American world.
We are seeing the EU move to strengthen its bonds across the board with French President Emmanuel Macron pushing for “more Europe” integration in finance, trade, politics and even more intra-EU security cooperation. In Asia, the Japanese-led TPP-11 is likely to be finalized. South Korea will swiftly join, and membership offers may be extended to China.
At the same time, intra-Asian security cooperation is also growing as part of maritime cooperation among ASEAN states, between Japan, India and Australia. US influence in the Middle East is greatly diminished, and Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has eroded US credibility.
This brings us to the third trend: intensifying conflict in the Greater Middle East.
New tensions between the US and Pakistan will make the Afghan conflict more intense and violent. Simmering political and Sunni-Shiite disputes in the region could lead to more flashpoints among a range of actors. Iran-Saudi Arabia geopolitical competition for regional influence will remain high, with repercussions for Gulf states and particularly, Yemen, which is already facing a humanitarian disaster and political chaos.
Iran’s influence is likely to remain intact, particularly in Iraq, despite efforts by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government and Shiite nationalists like Muqtada al-Sadr to lessen the political clout of Iranian-backed sectarian militias.
Yet the recent popular protests inside Iran could undermine the Mullahs’ regional ambitions. Kurds in 2017 also created the potential for political and military crises in both Iraq and Syria in 2018. Due to the diminishing US role in determining the final status of the Syrian state, a combination of Iran, Turkey, and Russia (alongside the surviving Assad regime) may move against the Syrian Kurds.
And with the demise of territory under its control in Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State, like mercury, will pop up in other areas of the world.
Bashar al-Assad will have a pyrrhic victory in Syria, presiding over smoking ruins as neither the Gulf Cooperation Council, the EU nor the US will fund reconstruction as long as Assad is in power.
The fourth trend is perhaps a more positive one: the advance of the fourth industrial revolution: emerging technologies, powered by new, superfast 5G connectivity, and the internet of things will increasingly be deployed along with autonomous vehicles, and artificial intelligence, with ever more capable machine learning will mean smarter robots and apps, and not least biotech and immunology will advance saving countless lives.
All these trends will impact Asia in unforeseen ways: from terrorism in Southeast Asia, to oil price hikes dampening economic growth, and not least, to an Asia moving into uncharted historical territory with the waning of US role.